First two nights, Tel Aviv: We stayed at the Center Chic hotel. The staff was friendly and helpful, and our rooms were ready early. We had two adjoining rooms which were quite “compact,” but clean and unobjectionable. Very loud music was playing over a loudspeaker from nearby Dizengoff Square. I found this charming because it was Chanuka music, and the novelty of this made it seem like a festive addition rather than a disturbing annoyance. The location was very convenient for being able to walk out and grab a snack or experience the vibrancy of the Dizengoff Center area, and the staff remained helpful throughout. They have a large locked storage closet to hold bags, too, which allowed us to leave our bags after check out and come back to pick them up later. (We discovered not all hotels have this!)
Breakfasts at the Hotel Cinema across the street were very nice—the best we were to encounter on our trip, as it happens, and the last place we’d see a pot of brewed coffee!!
We enjoyed our visit to the Palmach Museum, and got our first taste of the “museological experience” concept (that’s the term they use at the Masada museum) involving walking through various tableaux while listening to recorded narration that changes as you move from room to room. The tour guide was charming and informative and funny, and the tour itself was very moving and made the history of Israel’s struggle for independence very personal.
Third night, Mizpe Ramon: The staff at Ramon Suites (also called Ramon Hotel) was helpful in arranging a jeep tour of the crater when our previous plans didn’t work out. Our guide, Ziv Ravits, was entertaining and knowledgable and we found that 2.5 hours was just right for the tour. One glitch was that our hotel was NOT equipped to store luggage after checkout. They allowed us to leave our luggage in the room until we got back from our tour, which was about 1 hour after the official checkout time, but if we’d had a longer tour, I guess we’d have had to leave the luggage in the car, which might or might not have been a problem.
Fourth night: We then proceeded to Masada, which, it turns out, is nearly impossible to figure out how to enter into the GPS. I wish I could remember exactly how I finally managed so that I could pass that pearl of wisdom along, but suffice it to say—you definitely need a map, too! We stayed overnight at the Masada Guest House, and had dinner there as well as breakfast. I would compare the food to a reasonably good college cafeteria.
The guest house let us store our luggage in the office while we toured Masada. I guess a lot of people climb up early and are down before check out, because not too many other bags were stored there. By the way, the walk up from the guest house to the visitors’ center/ticket window is a pretty steep climb, so if there are people with mobility issues among you, it might be a good idea to drop them at the door rather than trying to walk up, even though it’s right “next door.”
We visited the “museological experience” before taking the cable car up. This was a very good introduction to the history and significance of the site, as well as a preview of what we would see. Admission to the museum also includes the cost of a self-guided audio tour that can be picked up at the gift shop at the top of the mountain. On this particular day, there were many very large tour groups, some rather boisterous, and this detracted some from the experience. Because it was a Thursday, we encountered several bar/bat mitzvah groups and could even hear some of the kids chanting their Torah portions, which was nice. I was vexed that the cable car return trip dumped us out into a very expensive and crowded food court and it wasn’t at all apparent how to get back to where we’d started, where there had been a grab-and-go convenience store with snacks and drinks. Tip: go back up the stairs outside!
At Masada, we purchased tickets that we thought were good any 3 of the National Park sites…but we were wrong. It turns out if you get the 3 park pass, it doesn’t include ALL of them. We would have been better off purchasing admission at Masada separately. Live and learn.
Fifth through eighth nights: We then drove to Jerusalem, experiencing some very impressive traffic. Checked in for four nights at Bet Shmuel, in one of their hotel rooms. The hotel rooms are across the courtyard from the reception desk, and up a flight, over the Hirsch theater. It almost feels like a wing of an office building has been converted into hotel rooms. Unfortunately, there is a ballroom right overhead and it seemed like we were hearing loud DJ music all night every night. Also, the breakfast was kind of disappointing. I’ve had better breakfasts at a Hampton Inn. We also got to share the space one morning with a huge group of high school students on a confirmation trip, which wasn’t so pleasant. BUT…the location is terrific and the price was right--$250/night for the four of us in high season.
In Jerusalem, we did a guided tour of the City of David excavations, which, despite being a National Park site, was NOT included on our multi-park ticket, because I didn’t realize the 3-park ticket didn’t include all the parks. The guide was informative and pleasant and we enjoyed the tour. We then visited the Kotel and made our way back to the hotel via the Arab quarter, stopping for a late lunch in the shuk. The next day, which was Shabbat, we did a four-hour tour of the Old City with Amy Ben-Dov, who was extremely informative and entertaining. We then spent a great deal of time in the shuk, but found the process of bargaining to be stressful and unsatisfying, leaving us feeling like we were probably being taken for a ride no matter what. The next day we visited shops in Nahalat Shiva, Ben Yehuda Street, and the Machane Yehuda market and in between, and were surprised to discover the prices were in line with what things cost in the shuk AFTER the haggling was done. Without the arguments. Wish I’d known that at the outset. We also could have done a better job of consolidating our purchases so as to qualify for the VAT refund, instead of spending 200 shekels here, 200 there. The only VAT refund I wound up claiming was for a pair of Naot shoes from Khalifa Shoes in Jerusalem.
Ninth through eleventh nights: After Jerusalem, we moved on to the North. We saw where our daughter is living in Karmiel, and bought pizza for her flatmates and host sisters. Discovered that pizza with corn on it, although it sounds odd, tastes pretty good, but that pizza with tuna isn’t as good an idea. We checked into Pina Barosh in Rosh Pina, where we had a nice two-room suite that was very charming to look at but had, in the end, a few functionality issues. But much about it was just lovely and the staff was very nice.
Our guide, Pamela Levene, came up from Tel Aviv by bus and traveled with us in our rental car, staying overnight at Pina Barosh where they gave us a discounted rate for her room. The first day, we toured some sites of around the Sea of Galilee, and then made our way into the Golan where we visited the chocolate factory at Kibbutz Ein Gev and made our own truffles. We saw a film about the Yom Kippur war at Kibbutz El Rom and then saw the memorial site at the Valley of Tears across the road. Again, this put a very personal spin on Israel’s history. The second day, we did a walk through Rosh Pina, including a lookout point built in memory of a young man killed in the second war with Lebanon. Perhaps because a school group was touring just ahead of us, the young man’s own father happened to be there, and told us about his son and why he, the father, had created the memorial. Again, a very personal connection to the struggle for Israel’s security. Next we toured Tzfat, and then made our way to Akko where we saw the Crusader castle. The “museological experience” here was at the Turkish bath house which was, quite frankly, weird. The castle, though, was very impressive. We dropped Pamela at the train station and made our way back to Rosh Pina. Pamela was warm and personable, and touring with her felt like spending the day with a favorite aunt.
On our last day, we visited Tiberias and then stopped to see friends at their kibbutz near Kfar Tavor and then made our way to Ben Gurion for our flight home. Were flabbergasted when they let us through layers of security with all our liquids and whatnot, and then CONFISCATED EVERYONE’S WATER BOTTLES before boarding the plane. Twelve hours on the plane without anything to drink but the occasional 4 ounce plastic cup of ice with a splash of soda. The guys at the gate did let us dump out the water and carry the bottles on empty, so that my daughter could refill hers on board (she has to have water with her at all times due to a medical condition). I suppose we could have seen that coming when we were warned not to buy any liquids in the duty-free shop (which included, of course, just about anything you would want to buy in a duty-free shop—wine, Dead Sea cosmetics, etc). Also, if you fly Continental, the kosher food is terrible. If you’re not strictly kosher, maybe try vegetarian instead.
We rented our cell phones from Amigo, and found that the ability to use the walkie-talkie feature was kind of hit-or-miss. (I also discovered right before departure that I have the type of cell phone that can be unlocked and used with an Israel sim card—but I’d already rented the Amigo phone. Who knew?) We also rented a mobile hotspot for $10/day that allowed all four of us to connect our wi-fi enabled devices anywhere. We had, among the four of us, a Kindle Fire, two Nook Colors, and a netbook. Most of the hotels, but not all, had wi-fi, but we appreciated being able to look things up online while en route somewhere in the car, or while sitting in a restaurant or on a bench somewhere. Things like Google Maps directions, hotel check-in times, and TripAdvisor reviews of restaurants! It was a little extravagant but I think it was worth it. We were frequently glad to have it.
We also ran into a small snafu with ATMs. Our ATM cards worked only at Bank Leumi, and, bewilderingly, we seemed to have a 1000 shekel per day limit! So it was a good thing we had two cards among us and could take out 2000 shekels per day whenever we spotted a Bank Leumi. We might have gotten a bit carried away with this and wound up changing back shekels to $450 at the airport.
Thanks, Trip Advisor for pointing me to the many of the hotels, restaurants, sites, and experiences we enjoyed. We didn’t see everything that we hoped to see, but we did as much as we could manage within our family’s constraints.